It’s now 28 years since “The Candidate” was released in the middle of the Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign, and I’m astonished that it’s still alive and apparently relevant, still quoted when columnists want to make a point about a certain kind of politician. Gore Vidal predicted this about six months after the film opened, but I didn’t believe him.
“You’re going to take my residuals!” he said. He explained to me that American TV had room for only one political-electoral film at a time, and they tended to last about 10 years. His own original script “The Best Man,” in which an Adlai Stevenson-like Henry Fonda (who else?) resists the chance to blackmail a Nixonian presidential rival, had run its course. Now, he said, “The Candidate” was going to take over.
At the time, “The Candidate” had been at best a minor success, and maybe even a bottom-line failure in the reckoning of studio executives. It had opened to mixed reviews and struggled along respectably, but failed to take off as movies must to bring the profits true players look for. I was happy that it had survived and been widely seen, but was well aware that this was due to the same reason it had been financed: the presence of Robert Redford, who at first was indulged as a low-budget producer of movies he starred in, on the hope that he’d favor the more commercial projects from the same studios.
Redford’s name went over the title for his starring role as Bill McKay, the idealistic son of an ex-governor of California, who is tricked into running for senator, against his own best judgment, on the promise that he can say what he likes because he’s sure to lose.
The professional campaign manager who cunningly presses McKay’s buttons (Peter Boyle) knows that in the pressures of campaigning, McKay will be forced away from his beliefs, and in the end find it hard to recall what they were. By the time McKay pulls off his last-minute victory, he is so lost he has no idea what to do next.
Redford, director Michael Ritchie and I were all in our early 30s when the picture was made. They came to me because they’d reached an impasse on the beginnings of a story about how the candidate gets drawn into the California Senate race. At that point, they had no script and a start date four months off.
I was one of a number of screenwriters interviewed. I had experience in practical campaigning as Eugene McCarthy’s speech writer, traveling around the country with him in 1968. I assumed I would not get the job and felt free (like Bill McKay) to say what I liked.
“We want to make a movie about a liberal politician who sells out,” Redford told me.
“Most of them don’t sell out,” I said. “They get carried away. It’s like being a movie star. The constant feedback buffets you like a man overboard in a turbulent river. You don’t entirely trust it, but you have to respond to it if you want to keep going downstream. Know it or not, you may be heading over the falls.”
To my surprise, I got the job. Redford got the point, and he told stories from his “feedback” experience I could mix and change with my own stories of campaigning.
When Redford had moments on the set where he feared we had no guiding story line, I always fell back on the image of a man going over the falls. To me, it’s only realistic to assume that, in the larger sense, most campaigners don’t really know what they’re doing, or the nature of the forces that come in their direction day by day.
Ritchie had spent the preceding summer with John Tunney’s senatorial campaign, and worked out the idea of putting an actor with face recognition on the street, camera crew in tow, and letting him greet passersby and ask for their vote. Ritchie also had taken footage of large political meetings and rallies, which could later be intercut in a way that showed McKay entering the same premises and addressing the same crowd, where the camera would pick out luminaries of the time like Hubert Humphrey and former California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh.
We were fortunate to have signed on two of Tunney’s top staffers, his campaign manager and his speech writer, to draw on their California connections to assemble crowds of real political workers and make sure the props and settings were authentic.
These two bright and competent guys let me know in the most friendly way that they disagreed about Bill McKay. They were the first to propound a wrong interpretation of “The Candidate,” in which Bill McKay was a young guy learning about political reality on his way to becoming a mature and responsible senator. To me, and to Redford and Ritchie, this interpretation would be dead wrong. My attempts to refute them by citing tone and substance were easily dismissed as a writer’s private rationale. This made for amusing banter on the set, as did the collection of crew people who campaigned for the incumbent Sen. Crocker Jarmon (played with delicious gravity by Don Porter) to beat the young upstart McKay.
Redford, Ritchie and I were only heartened by such developments. We took them as signs of our success in capturing the day-by-day reality of political campaigns.
Liberal commentators, by and large, disliked the story, and were quick to point out that real-life senators were hardly as innocent as McKay--that real-life campaigning and politicking were far more serious and complicated matters, hardly the playthings of media consultants that we’d made them out to be. If someone had asked me, I would have said that they got it wrong, and that we were not claiming McKay was typical, just possible.
In understanding how the film overcame such spotty beginnings, one can’t underestimate the changing political climate. Most people don’t remember that in the ’72 campaign McGovern was trying to call attention to the nastiness, elitism and law-breaking embodied in the Watergate affair. At the time, hardly anyone was paying attention! It was simply not believable, at that time, that presidents could be so driven by the most trivial details of manipulating public opinion.
When McGovern saw “The Candidate” at a special screening in 1972, it made him angry. I was not surprised to hear that; I was mildly gratified. It was what I would expect from a man who tried to take his profession seriously. Naturally he would resent a movie about a politician steamrollered by the prevailing political environment.
But by the end of the ‘70s, the amalgamation of show biz and politics had become obvious, and “The Candidate” miraculously became readily accessible to the American audience and a standard play on preelection television each year. By the ‘80s, the advertising “image-is-everything” environment was so dominant that I began to get a very different reaction from politicians. When I was in my 40s and met newly elected congressmen in their 30s, they were honored to meet me and would say, to my amazement, “That’s us! That’s the way we are!”
I concede that the congressmen did not necessarily mean that they could be imposed upon and confused like Bill McKay. Most of them were simply being hip, in the manner of suburban yuppies who romanticized the ‘60s and adored the most angry and hostile popular music while leading lives as cogs in the spreading corporate machine. Such people disturbed me, but I noted that “The Candidate” had moved from outside to inside in terms of their self-conceptions.
“The Candidate” brought me two more surprises. One was an Academy Award for best screenplay. Still, a writing award doesn’t mean increased advertising or box office, and the best I could foresee was that the movie would survive as a cult film in the memory of the small circle who got it.
But what really saved the film had to do with the changing nature of American television. Movies in those days were severely edited for TV. This was especially crippling to “The Candidate” because I had put most of the exposition into the mouth of Howard Klein, the media chief (Allen Garfield), who expressed every thought in comic obscenities.
With Garfield almost cut out of the picture, the movie became a string of disconnected campaign events, with no connective tissue to ratchet the pressure that was pushing the story toward a crisis only the election could resolve. I assumed that I’d go down in history as a guy who got an Oscar for a film that was impossible to follow.
Cable changed all that. Among the cultural trends that have debased both movies and politics, we have to be grateful that most movies are now shown in their entirety or mostly so. This put Garfield back into the picture, and ensured that future viewers could at least see the film as its makers intended.
Little did we know that the “good senator” theory about Bill McKay would come back to haunt us in the shape of Sen. Dan Quayle, who loved to tell reporters that he’d seen “The Candidate” countless times and modeled himself after Redford’s character. In the 1988 presidential campaign, when every magazine profile seemed to claim the Quayle-McKay-Redford connection, I wrote an open letter to Quayle, which was printed as an op-ed piece in the New York Times, informing him that “The Candidate” “is not a how-to picture, it’s a watch-out picture. And you’re what we’ve got to watch out for.”
If “The Candidate” has truly become a classic, the reason is that the real-life tactics and attitudes we observed have mushroomed in the era of the permanent presidential campaign. The subsuming of politics into show business, and the shallowness of pop-political stardom are what we have to watch out for. A movie can’t defeat them, any more than we defeated Dan Quayle. But in a culture that can co-opt almost anything and use it to ends that were never intended, I consider us lucky to have done something that seems to grow more and more into its true meaning as it rolls along.